The Graphic Designer Otl Aicher
Otherwise known as Otto, is one of the leading German graphic designers of the twentieth century. He stands out as a principled man of his time, influenced by history and making good out of difficult times. He is probably best known for being the lead designer of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and for the creation of the pictograms which are the stick figures that can be seen in many public signs today for example men and women’s toilets.
Otl Aicher was born in May 13, 1922, Ulm and went to school with Werner Scholl. Many of Werner’s family were later to be executed by the Nazis for resistance fighting and belonging to the forbidden group ‘The White Rose’. Otl Aicher was also arrested for refusing to join in the Hitler Youth which closed off many paths for his future in Nazi Germany. For example, he was failed for his College entrance examination in 1941 despite having a very lively mind and showing active interests in philosophy, literature and art. As a result of failure to attend the College he was then drafted into the German army and despite many attempts to be exempted on medical groups his real objections were on the grounds of philosophy. In 1945 he eventually deserted the army just before the war was over and went to hide in the Scholl house back in Ulm where he believed he would be safe.
In 1946, after the war, as the Americans were in Germany he increasingly became involved in the rebuilding of the city and also raising people’s morale by setting up the Ulm ‘Circle of Friends’ which was held on Thursday evenings and discussed philosophy and literature besides other subjects. The posters Otl produced for this organization were his first real attempt at graphic design. By now Otl Aicher was studying sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and in 1947 he set up his own studio in Ulm.
In 1952 he married his long time sweetheart, the sister of his best friend, Inge Scholl. In 1953, with his wife, Inge, and Max Bill Otl founded the Ulm School of Design which had originated out of his Circle of Friends.The school was to become one of Germany’s leading educational centres for design for the 1950s and the 1960s. Typical alumni included Tomas Maldonado, Max Bill, Peter Seitz.
In 1969 Lufthansa commissioned Otl Aicher to produce a logo for their very successful airline but his raison d’etre was the commission from the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, for which he was the lead graphic designer. Alongside the Olympic Games he also invented the first official German mascot which was a stripy Dachshund whom they called Waldi. He also invented the use of pictograms – pictures of men and women in stick form in information signs to make them quickly identify the purpose of the logo. The main example which is usually given of this would be the men and women’s toilet signs.
In 1980 he became a consultant for the kitchen company Bulthalp and produced many modern designs for them. Around this time, you can see the stamp of functionalism (a contemporary philosophic movement at the time with the idea that items have to have a function, a reason of existing) entering into his work. This can particularly be seen with his development of the Rotis family of fonts in 1988 after the domiciliary Rotis where Otl lived and kept his studio. He also designed the legendary M for the Munich Airport in special font.
Unfortunately, Otl Aicher died in September 1 1991 in a traffic accident when a car ran into him when he was on his garden mower moving from one piece of his land to the other leaving the world without a graphic designer of true worth.